What is a pictogram?
A pictogram is one of the simplest (and most popular) forms of data visualization out there.
Also known as “pictographs”, “icon charts”, “picture charts”, and “pictorial unit charts”, pictograms use a series of repeated icons to visualize simple data. The icons are arranged in a single line or a grid, with each icon representing a certain number of units (usually 1, 10, or 100).
A feature of many great infographics, they’re often used to make otherwise boring facts or data points more compelling, as seen in the statistical infographic below.
Besides making your data look nice, pictograms can even make your data more memorable! It’s been shown that visually stacking icons to represent simple data can improve a reader’s recall of that data and even their level of engagement with that data.
Even if you don’t care about memorability and engagement (which you definitely should), pictograms can be a fun addition to any infographic.
And since they’re made from a series of icons, they’re perfect for those times when you need a nice graphic but you don’t have a graphic designer.
When to use a pictogram
You can use a pictogram whenever you want to make simple data more visually interesting, more memorable, or more engaging.
Whether you want to show the magnitude of an important stat or visualize a fraction or percentage, you can use pictograms to add visual impact to simple data.
1. Use a pictogram to show ratings or scores
We know that pictograms are great for showing simple proportions or percentages.
What’s a simple proportion that you see everyday?
Any guesses? (Hint: take a look at the header of this section).
Ratings, you got it!
Pretty much every site that allows customers to rate products or services (like Yelp and Amazon) use pictograms to show the results of their five-star rating system.
We can do the same thing to visualize ratings in our infographics.
Check out this infographic guide to peppers from CookSmarts, for example. They’ve used a series of super simple pictograms (“Fire Ratings”) to show the heat level of various peppers.
Besides making the ratings really easy to grasp at a glance, they’re a nice visual feature of the infographic.
Using pictograms to show ratings works can be useful in everything from comparison infographics to school progress reports, as seen below.
2. Refresh your resume with pictogram skills summaries
The infographic resume is emerging as a creative way to communicate your skills and experience to potential employers.
Since pictograms work so well for showing proportions, they make a great addition to the skills summary portion of an infographic resume. You can use them to show your level of proficiency with each of the skills in your professional toolbelt.
Check out this infographic resume from Zhi Liang, for example. As a graphic designer, he’s created a very visual resume to show off his graphic design skills. He’s used a collection simple (yet effective) pictograms to give a quick snapshot of all of his skills.
If you don’t want to go all in with an infographic resume, opt for a standard resume with simpler pictograms. Stick with basic circle or square icons and neutral greys for a subtle, more professional look that works just as well.
3. Indicate progress to a goal in a project status report
Pictograms can also be used to indicate status or progress toward a goal. Documents like project plans, product roadmaps, and project status reports can all benefit from a visual indicator of progress in the form of a pictogram.
In the project status template below, pictograms are used to give an overview of project progress and status (in terms of schedule, scope, and budget). It’s a quick way to communicate the high-level state of your project.
The same way that you would use a pictogram to show a proportion, use a darker color to indicate the progress made so far, and a lighter color to indicate the work that remains.
4. Spice up a simple bar chart for extra impact
As I mentioned earlier, pictograms can help make simple data more memorable and engaging.
If your infographic is centered around a simple dataset (like a single bar chart), you can use a series of pictograms to make your data a little more visually interesting.
Take a look at the infographic template below, for example. Instead of using an ultra-simple bar chart (which would contain a measly 3 bars), it uses custom pictograms to create a full-page, high impact data visualization.
5. Use pictograms as visual tallies to summarize survey results
Infographics are perfect for summarizing and presenting survey results. They’re much more interesting than numbers simply placed in tables and spreadsheets, and they can help your readers grasp key survey insights.
Pictograms are one of the keys to an impactful survey results infographic. You can use them as visual tallies, to visualize things like basic demographic data (like job title or role). They’re a fun way to emphasize the magnitude of various numbers, as seen in the survey infographic below.
A great example of this technique is in the popular YouTube video The Fallen of World War II, which uses pictographs to hammer home the death toll of the major wars in human history.
Instead of simply stating the number of deaths from each country, they’ve used pictograms to give those numbers even more significance.
Pictogram design best practices
Pictograms can be very effective additions to any visual document, as long as you use them the right way.
Here are a few design best practices to keep in mind when you’re working with pictograms in your infographics.
Use simple, meaningful icons to make your pictograms clear
Pictograms work best when their component icons are as simple and universally understood as possible.
Icons that are too detailed will tend to distract readers from the data - obscuring it instead of showing it more clearly.
Think basic, symmetrical shapes like stars, circles, and boxes rather than detailed, illustrated icons. Single-color icons that fit roughly into a square are perfect.
At the same time, make sure the icons you choose are relevant to the subject matter of your data.
The infographic below, for example, visualizes some statistics about tourism in Las Vagas. Notice how the icons in the pictograms are simple, but also provide a bit of information about the statistic they’re representing: the gender of the tourists in question.
Using simple, yet relevant icons will make it way easier for your audience to interpret your data.
Avoid contrasting colors for proportions and percentages
Using contrasting colors when representing proportions in pictograms can make your pictogram more distracting than helpful.
Instead, try to use two shades of the same color so that readers can more easily compare and contrast the data. Use a darker shade for the percentage you want to highlight and a lighter shade for the remaining units.
The easiest way to do this in Venngage is to apply the same color to every unit, and simply adjust the opacity of the remaining units.
Stick with rows of 5 or 10 for maximum readability
You don’t want your readers to have to count up all of the icons in a pictogram to get an accurate understanding of the data it represents.
So the icons in your pictograms, whether they’re showing a single big number or a proportion, should ideally add up to nice round numbers like 10 or 100. They should be split into rows of 5 or 10 to make your pictograms easier to grasp at a glance.
You can also make things easier on your readers by ensuring each pictogram is accompanied by a bold label - a large number that states the takeaway of the chart.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just a basic label that clearly tells the reader what they’re looking at, like in the infographic below.
How to make a pictogram in Venngage
Pictograms are one of the many built-in data visualization options offered in Venngage. You can make one in 3 easy steps.
1. Pick an icon from our Icon Chart library
To get started, open the ‘Icon Chart’ library in the left toolbar and find an icon you want to use for your pictogram.
Venngage’s icon database contains over 10,000 different icons, so to make things easier you can search by keyword or browse by category. Remember--the simpler the icon, the better.
Once you’ve found one you like, simply click it to create your pictogram.
2. Adjust the size and fill percentage of your pictogram
With your pictogram selected, you should see a number of adjustment options in the top toolbar--“icons/row”, “icons/column”, and “fill %”.
Play with the “icons/row” and “icons/column” options to adjust the number of icons per row and column. If you’re showing a standard percentage out of 100, it’s best to stick with a 10 x 10 grid.
Then set the “fill %” to match the percentage you’re trying to visualize. If you’re just visualizing a whole number, set the “fill %” to 100 so that every icon is the same color.
To change the scale of the chart as a whole, click and drag a handle on the chart’s bounding box.
3. Adjust the color of your pictogram
Finally, use the two color swatches (also in the top toolbar) to adjust the colors of your pictogram.
Again, try to stay away from contrasting colors. Using different shades of the same color will make your chart easier to read.
Pictograms are a great addition to a number-heavy or text-heavy infographic. They’re ideal for statistical infographics because they can give a snapshot of quantity and volume in a visually impactful way.
Want to learn more about visualizing data in infographics? Check out this guide: